Saturday, December 20, 2008

Defining Pharisaism

Jesus had these harsh words for religious leaders:

Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men. . . . You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. . . . invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.
Mark 7:6–9, 13

Pharisaism is when non-biblical religious traditions, upheld by professional religious leaders, become at least as important as scriptural commands and practices. Friends, I think we are unintentionally there. We have religious practices, which are not wrong in themselves (perhaps even good), but when we attribute to them the authority of the Scriptures, we cross a line that puts us in a dangerous place.

We cannot add to God’s Word and expect good results. If almighty God had intended the practices we have elevated in importance to be biblically binding, he would have made it clear in Scripture. When we give biblical authority to non-biblical practices, we face two lethal problems. First, these practices which are not authoritative, become authoritative, which is a form of legalism. Those who practice legalism take for themselves God’s place of authority, which is not just wrong, it is idolatrous—even blasphemous.

Second, such practices begin to supplant the important ones that the Bible does prescribe. As Jesus said, in following such practices, we are “neglecting the commandment of God.” We end up filtering out a gnat while swallowing a camel. Like a foreign infection in the body, traditions invade the church and try to take the place of biblical teachings. We cannot submit to two lords. Either God’s Word is our truth or our traditions are; we cannot meld the two and expect a healthy outcome.

Now, to be fair, there are some “Christian” sects and denominations that actually make their traditions part of the sacred canon, giving them as much authority as Scripture. At least these groups are being logically consistent with their abuses, rather than acting as though they are biblical. On the other hand, I cannot find biblical precedent for making tradition authoritative and I find tons of reasons to reject the practice. Basically this is just an attempt to be consistent and justify religious practices that are not found in the Bible.

Let me reiterate. There is nothing wrong with worship services, the functions done in the sacraments, or abstaining from heavy lifting on the Sabbath. It is not how we observe the Sabbath that is wrong, but the spiritual significance and value we place on the man-made edict/application attached to it that is the problem.

Along the same line, the church has laid down what it considers healthy constraints to safeguard the righteous standards of God’s people. Directives are given such as: go to church (read a religious event on Sundays or in some cases Saturdays), don’t listen to secular music, stay away from R-rated movies, and abstain from all alcohol. These are not bad ideas for some people and may even be wise suggestions given the right context. Unfortunately, what begins as suggestion soon attains the clout of holy writ, especially when religious leaders pronounce them with authority and support them with Scripture verses ripped violently out of context. In little time we find ourselves functioning in a religious culture that has biblical principles intertwined with man-made injunctions, and few can distinguish between them. In fact we are certain to mix up the two, and spiritual priorities get messed up.

This is what motivates my writing. I really want us to get back to a pure understanding of God’s word and living in radical obedience to His command out of love for His gift to us. I want Jesus to be the Head of His body, not tradition, or human religious leaders. I want the church to be recognized as special, holy, apostolic and a functioning body in this world.

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